Planning a birthday party for your child can seem to get more and more stressful and time consuming year after year, but those big birthday bashes we see online (we’re looking at you, Pinterest!) may not be what your child really wants for their celebration. We spoke to event planners and area parents to find out what their kids really wanted at their birthday parties this year—turns out, bigger isn’t always better when it comes to celebrating the birthday child.
Take it from parents who know: Your kids may say they want a huge birthday blowout at the local arcade, but what they really want is a celebration that’s far more meaningful—and less chaotic.
“A birthday is a time to enter your child’s world,” says Julie Morganstern, author of several books, including her latest, Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You. “All kids want is for someone to see [them] and to understand [them] and that’s what I think a birthday celebration is really about.”
In fact, keeping the party smaller and simpler may make a bigger impression on your kid in the long run. “The most memorable experiences are those that incorporate multiple senses, evoke an emotional connection, and incorporate an element of novelty,” says Chrissy Khachane, an educational consultant and parenting coach. “Slowing down a bit to focus on some of life’s simple pleasures—family, good food, and laughter—affords children a party that incorporates the most important parts of childhood.”
So this year, instead of getting into a frenzy planning your child’s party, consider tapping into your sense of nostalgia. Plan a day that involves playing tag in the backyard, tossing a ball, gathering on a beach or in the park, or playing board games or Duck, Duck, Goose. And whatever you do, consider taking a few cues from these parents and experts as they share their take on rethinking our kids’ birthday parties.
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Step Away from the Competition
It’s super easy for birthday parties to become competitive, or all about status, where parents are one-upping each other over everything from the venue to just how deluxe the goodie bags are, Morganstern warns.
Instead, “you want to establish values and make sure your kids don’t get caught up in all that external pressure to compete,” Moganstern says. “You also want to focus on redefining what the real value is of a birthday party. In my book it’s all about celebrating who you are, it’s connecting with the people you really love and the ones who care most about you. That’s your family and friends. It’s not about impressing anybody. If it’s about competition with other parents then the party isn’t about [your child], it’s about other people.”
Let Your Child Play Party Planner
If your child insists on helping out with the party planning, don’t hesitate to invite him to play an important role—depending on how old he is, of course. “One way you can let your child take the lead is picking out the party theme,” says Amy Horta, owner of AEH Events, a custom event planning and design firm in Westchester County.
Horta let her own 3-year-old son have a hand in creating his construction-themed birthday party. “He went with me on a trip to Home Depot (his favorite place!) for décor,” she says. “He also helped paint toolbox favors for all his guests.”
Exercise Crowd Control
If you have a toddler who doesn’t love big crowds, having a party with lots of guests just won’t be fun for her. “If there are loads of family and friends who want to shower the birthday boy or girl with good wishes, consider inviting family over for cake the weekend before the birthday and then have a small kids’ party the weekend after,” Horta recommends. “It may be a little more work planning two events, but it helps make sure that the birthday boy or girl don’t get completely overwhelmed on their big day!”
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Teens, too, may feel that a crowded bash isn’t right for them. They may prefer to do a special activity with couple of friends in place of a bustling party. “Think indoor rock climbing, a trapeze class, a double feature at the movies—with popcorn—or even a day out in Manhattan,” Horta says. “A birthday celebration doesn’t always have to mean a big party with lots of people.”
Gather Somewhere Unique
“We keep our daughter’s birthday parties pretty low key,” says Raakhee Mirchandani Singh, a Hoboken, NJ mom of Satya, 5, and author of the forthcoming kids’ book, Super Satya Saves the Day. “For Satya’s second, third, and fourth birthdays, we’ve had a story time at our local bookstore,” she says. The owner “reads some of Satya’s favorite titles, and some new ones too. And Satya and her friends love it,” Singh says.
Instead of receiving goodie bags, “the kids go home with a book,” Singh adds. “I feel awesome knowing we’re...encouraging the next generation of bookworms!”
Honor Your Kid’s Passions
“When my daughter was seven, we decided to focus her birthday party around her interest in dance,” Morganstern says. “I invited a woman who did dance parties to come and lead the kids in a series of dances. It was so wonderful to watch our daughter share something she loved with her friends.”
Incorporating your child’s interests is a great way to make a party special, Khachane agrees: “Through focusing on something that is important to the birthday girl or boy there is a strong connection that takes the experience beyond what one might find at a [generic] party."
See a Party as a Way to Build Community
A birthday party should absolutely focus fully on the birthday boy or girl, but it can also serve another purpose, especially if you’re new in town. For Cherie Corso, a Westchester parent expert, blogger, and mom of a 15-year-old daughter, birthday parties through the years have been wonderful ways to meet other families in town.
“My daughter always wanted to invite her whole class so these gatherings were a great way for me to get to know the parents,” Corso says. “Best of all, my daughter has wonderful memories of those gatherings and I got to meet so many other families, too.”
Let Your Kids Have a Say
After Fort Lee, NJ mom Zaida Khaze’s daughters spent their sixth and seventh birthday parties with close friends, they both announced that for their next birthdays they’d rather go somewhere special. “With all the money that was spent per party for ninety minutes of fun and a goodie bag, I didn’t object,” Khaze says. “The next year, my older daughter opted for a weekend visit with the immediate family to [Great] Wolf Lodge and my younger daughter wanted to go to Six Flags.”
Khaze says she was happy to not spend the time or money planning parties. “I would rather spend that money on their birthday presents. I was very impressed how my kids figured this out on their own.”
Focus on the Love
“Satya just wants to feel loved and celebrated,” Singh says. “I don’t think she cares about the specifics of the venue, the cake, or anything else...As for gifts, we’re pretty aggressive in our ‘no gifts’ policy and have been since her first birthday as Satya is a cancer survivor. Our friends bring gift cards to the party that we donate to the Tomorrows Children’s Fund in Hackensack,” she says. “Truth is, the kid has everything a little girl could want and then some: good health, sneakers that light up, parents who adore her, and more Wonder Woman junk than I ever thought humanly possible. So we encourage her to share with others.”
And isn’t that the point of an awesome birthday party after all?